Risk, life extension and the pursuit of medical possibility


Address for correspondence: Janet K. Shim, Institute for Health and Aging, Box 0646 University of California, San Fransisco 3333 California Street, Suite 340 San Francisco, CA, USA 94143-0646. e-mail: janet.shim@ucsf.edu


With increasing frequency, the oldest members of US society are undergoing medical interventions aimed at prolonging life. Using cardiac care as a case study, this paper explores how a discourse of risk infuses and legitimates high-tech clinical treatments in late life. In particular, we examine how the diminishing risks associated with biomedical procedures produce a sense of medical possibility regarding life extension, and push the definition of ‘old age’ into a receding future. Simultaneously, physicians, patients and families come to understand the management and reduction of future cardiac risks to be germane for individuals even near the end of life. Driven by the logic and language of risk, decisions to intervene are experienced as incremental and largely unremarkable, and the pursuit of an open-ended future via biomedical means is perceived as an ethical imperative, trumping deliberation or discussion of the utility of intervention and the ultimate ends being pursued. For practitioners and patients alike, the engagement of risk, the preservation of hope it facilitates and the routinisation of intervention it produces all contribute to the emerging mandate to treat at ever-older ages.